Amy Lowell: Diva Poet
In Amy Lowell Among Her Contemporaries, I rebuke Amy Lowell’s biographers for making her out to be an insecure, obese, and mediocre poet who compensated for her fears and self-loathing by making a public spectacle of herself, smoking cigars, and behaving like the “demon saleswoman” of American poetry—to use T. S. Eliot’s dismissive sobriquet. I dislike the highhanded way Eliot, Pound, and their minions had usurped the mantle of modernism for themselves. And I was heavily influenced by Rebecca West, one of my biographical subjects, who loathed both poets. She once found herself uncomfortably eating a meal with Eliot in Barbados of all places. Both were on holiday, and a disgruntled West tried to make do with an evening out in the company of a stiff who countermanded her desire to order a white burgundy: “Had we better not wait to see what we are going to eat before we think of what we are going to drink.” This was the literary commissar she had regularly attacked in her book reviews.
I was also influenced by a postmodern generation of scholars who have been steadily rehabilitating Lowell decades after her demise in 1925, when the male academy— emulating Pound’s disparaging of “Amygism”—knocked her off the modern syllabus. Now that generation has a new leader, Melissa Bradshaw, whose Amy Lowell: Diva Poet restores the life and work of one of the twentieth century’s most important poets. Like Rebecca West, who was inspired to write in 1910 by Sarah Bernhardt, Amy Lowell turned poet after watching a performance of Eleonora Duse in 1902. Both writers understood that to secure a central place for themselves in contemporary culture, they had to become divas—that is, to quote Bradshaw, to become “performer and performance, producer and product.” While West was attracted to the more histrionic Bernhardt, Lowell gravitated toward Duse, a “pioneering artist in theatrical realism” and a practitioner of the “evocative power of minimalism which empowers audiences to create artistic meaning,” as Bradshaw observes. It occurs to me that these affiliations explain why West, a brilliant critic, wrote such discursive essays, and Lowell such breviloquent lyric poetry.
Lowell lived with a retired actress, Ada Dwyer Russell, for the last eleven years of Lowell’s life, when Russell was not only her companionate lover, but also her drama coach. Lowell was a formidable performer on the public stage, one who made poetry “news”—an unforgivable offense to modernists, who saw their work as far too recondite for the masses. Lowell out-produced her male contemporaries and turned out one best seller after another—a sure sign that she was no good. And, indeed, she did write some awful poems, just as Eugene O’Neill created some dubious dramas. In both cases, however, a core of greatness remains. With “Madonna of the Evening Flowers” (a subject of one my earlier columns), “Venus Transiens,” “Absence,” “The Onlooker,” “Patterns,” “Lilacs,” and perhaps two dozen other poems, she earned a place in the canon. As Bradshaw points out, even as Lowell has dropped out of poetry anthologies, her presence has been revived on the web in a series of Youtube videos and other inventive sites that pay tribute to the poet’s continuing appeal.
One of Lowell’s great subjects is the female nude. In “Venus Transiens,” a poem Bradshaw parses to brilliant effect, the poet takes on Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. This is not just one of Lowell’s best works, it is one of the great poems in the English language, one in which a woman dares to create a work of art that rivals in beauty one of the masterpieces of Western painting. I have tried to read the poem aloud many times and have never been able to voice its ineffable beauty, longing, and desire. There are over thirty Librivox recordings of the poem, and perhaps two of the readers convey some measure of the poem’s magnificence. I play the recordings to my students because I think that is the best way to convey the distinctiveness and elusiveness of the voice and vision of this masterwork. And I challenge them to read the poem aloud to us—a challenge that is rarely answered and never suits the class’s conception of how the poem should sound. We all sit there trying to will what we have read into the reality of the classroom, just as Duse made audiences adopt her emotions as their own. Students leave the classroom with some idea of how the poem should sound as if it were theirs. How do I know? I can see it on their faces, just as Lowell saw Duse’s audience carry away a sense of themselves as artists. But don’t take my word for it. George Bernard Shaw said as much, as I learned from Bradshaw’s book.
Here is the poem in its entirety:
The poem’s first two words, like Melville’s “Call me Ishmael,” draw you into a world that is of the speaker’s making, which is also yours to possess as someone who idealizes the beloved of your imagination. The poem speaks of a heart-stopping love, a miracle of feeling that is rendered in the sight of Venus stopping the crinkled waves. In “stopped/The crinkled waves,” we hear the sound of the sea and also the smoothing of creases that life inflicts on us and that love soothes. How wonderful that the speaker’s words are the wind that blows her beloved about like the wind that wafts Venus ashore. And then the words shift into a simile, “As . . . a gauze/ Of misted silver.” I especially like this maneuver, because it catches the idea of love being created on the spot, so to speak, a Venus in transit, moving through the poet’s imagination, even as Botticelli’s nude moves shoreward. Bradshaw suggests the poem’s title emphasizes the “fleeting, ephemeral” representation of love, in contrast to Botticelli’s “immutable, finite” depiction. Perhaps, although Lowell’s bouquet of words is a memorial to love that is as striking as Botticelli’s “pointed rosebuds.” That so much of the first stanza is a question perpetuates the wondering tone, the worshipful wish for a reciprocal response. But the answer, in the second stanza, shows the effect of the questions, which is to make the world move for the speaker, as the sea meets the sand. What was a vision of loveliness sails right into the lover’s heart, rippling and stirring in what even T. S. Eliot would have had to admit is a wonderful objective correlative.
“Venus Transiens” is a good example of what Bradshaw calls the “erotics of submission.” The Amy Lowell who seemed such a robust and aggressive self-promoter, writing poems about rollicking in her bath, is countered by a woman who did not begin publishing poetry until she was thirty-eight after a nearly decade-long apprenticeship preparing herself for a public career that reflected, in Bradshaw’s words, a tension between “performance and confession” that Duse herself exemplified. “Loving Duse [Lowell wrote several poems about the actress],” Bradshaw writes, “shaped Lowell’s selfhood, offering a desultory young heiress a way out of neurasthenic torpor, towards self actualization . . . The Italian actress’s enactment of feminine servitude and vulnerability seduced Lowell. In proclaiming Duse as her most beloved diva, she stakes an identify for herself as a woman enthralled by the performances of submissive womanhood.”
Bradshaw, like other recent critics, sees in Lowell’s poetry evidence of her lesbianism that is transfigured in “Venus Transiens” into a “poet as besotted knight, trying to find the magical words that will express the inexpressible,” invoking "knighthood’s heraldic function. Emblazoned with The Beloved’s colors . . . Lowell’s abased poetic persona makes art of her failed worship. The Beloved herself is secondary to the narrator’s eroticized humiliation.” That arousal of the poetic persona is why the beloved makes no appearance in the second stanza of “Venus Transiens.” The poet’s “powerlessness,” Bradshaw concludes, “is, however, a marker of a traditionally masculine power—the power to choose, and to exult in, powerlessness.”
During her last American tour in 1924, Duse was dying and exceptionally frail, but also more powerful than ever—in part, because of her frailty and vulnerability. The same observation can be made about Lowell herself, who, close to dying, wrote love lyrics that showed the poet at the height of her power. Lowell did her best to take care of her diva, even as she despaired of ever really knowing the woman who had inspired her art. The same may be said of Amy Lowell. She is at once so revealing and so reticent— nothing like the bumptious poet Eliot and Pound were so intent on reading out of their movement.
Carl Rollyson is Professor of Journalism at Baruch College, The City University of New York. He reviews biographies regularly for The Wall Street Journal, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and other newspapers and periodicals. Carl is the author of a dozen biographies, including Marilyn Monroe: A Life of the Actress, Rebecca West: A Modern Sibyl, and with his wife, Lisa Paddock, Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon. His studies of biography include: A Higher Form of Cannibalism: Adventures in the Art and Politics of Biography and Biography: A User's Guide. More about Carl and his work can be found at his website. His Hollywood Enigma: Dana Andrews will appear this fall and American Isis: The Life and Death of Sylvia Plath in the spring of 2013. When not writing, he is playing with his two Scotties. Contact Carl.